When you’re having friends over for dinner at 7:30, and it’s getting on in the day, time grows precious and you have to prioritize. Do you spend it shopping or do you spend it cooking? More often than not, I spend it cooking. My usual cooking routine goes: rush to Gelson’s, gather up overpriced ingredients, hurry home, make the dessert, assemble the entree, get things ready for the appetizer and drink a glass of wine while listening to “The Music Man” just as the guests show up. But last week I changed my dinner party strategy. Instead of spending most of my time in the kitchen, I spent it on the road, gathering up great ingredients to see if it made a difference. And you know what? It totally did. That strategy yielded better results than if I’d spent that same time stirring over a stove. Here’s why.
At first I wasn’t nervous. Or, at least, I told myself I wasn’t nervous. My friend Barrett Foa, who agreed to come on The Clean Plate Club, told me that his dream food guest would be Suzanne Tracht, the celebrated chef at Jar here in Los Angeles (also, a Top Chef Master). Before I knew it, Chef Tracht agreed to come over and I found myself in a position I’d never been in before: I was going to cook for a chef. I’d never cooked for a chef before. What would I make? How should I serve it? The night before the dinner, I was wide awake in bed, unable to fall asleep.
As the 300th season of Top Chef looms, a few predictions: in the first episode, there will be an arrogant know-it-all who claims a superior set of kitchen skills, only, when asked to debone a chicken, he’ll crumple into a heap and cry, “My mother never loved me!” A duo of lesbian sashimi experts, formerly inseparable, will have their loyalties tested when one is told to pack her knives and go and the other is told that her knife skills surpass Morimoto’s. A down-and-out hard-on-his-luck dishwasher, who hosts supper clubs in his spare time, will bring tears to Emeril’s eyes when he recreates his grandmother’s gumbo, beating out a chef from a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Napa for the final slot on the show.
Today’s the Jewish New Year–Happy New Year, you Jewish people, you–but it’s also, basically, our two-year anniversary of moving to L.A. Last year, around this time, I wrote a post called “One Year in L.A.: A Reflection.” It’s a pretty fascinating thing for me to re-read because, at the time, we were about to go back to New York for Craig to shoot The Skeleton Twins and I could barely contain my excitement. The gist of that post was: L.A. is fine, but I’m a New York boy through and through.
Dear New York Times Magazine Food Section,
It’s very weird to be writing you right now because I’ve been reading you for so many years–almost a decade–and I feel sheepish calling you out in such a public forum. Let me start by saying that my motivations here are entirely pure; I’m writing as a fan, not a foe, and I want only the best for us both, you as a magazine food section and me as a reader. But lately something’s changed about your format and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s ruining what used to be a cherished Sunday morning experience.
Did tears trickle down my face as I took my first bite? No, they did not. That’s one thing that occurs to me now, how easy it is to take meat for granted when you eat it. Yes, I enjoyed myself–it’s a really excellent burger–but eating meat in America is akin to watching reality TV or listening to loud, repetetive music. It’s not something you really think about, it’s just something you do when you’re not thinking. And that, I think, is what this conversation about meat all comes down to: whether you want to think about it or not.
In this life there are rule-followers and rule-breakers. I’ll never forget the day that Mrs. Murley, my high school A.P. European History teacher, kicked Brian T. out of class for being impertinent. As he was leaving, Mrs. Murley said, “Don’t fall off your motorcycle this summer.” Brian T. replied, “Don’t fall off of your high horse.”
Oof! The rule-breakery of it! This may not come as a shock, but I was the ultimate rule follower growing up. Rules meant structure, they meant a clearly defined path you could follow. Breaking the rules meant casting yourself off into the great unknown.
In good stories, a character changes. So, for example, if you’re watching a movie about a guy who’s afraid of heights but his girlfriend is being held hostage at the top of Mount Everest, we expect him to get over his fear in order to save her. If he decides to just leave her there and become a knitting teacher, it probably wouldn’t be a very good movie. (Though, on second thought, maybe it would?)
Thinking of me as your main character, then, consider my post last week about cottage cheese. I find the stuff repulsive. 157 of you disagreed with me in the comments. So yesterday I went to Gelson’s and saw Low-Fat Knudsen’s Cottage Cheese, the kind many of you eat, and decided to challenge myself to make dinner with it. If this were a good story, I’d learn to love it at the end.